Tao of the Zentropist

June 26, 2013

Welcome to Surveillance Society

Governments and private industry have a vested interest in knowing what we are all about – should this come as a surprise to anyone in this age? The fact that Edward Snowden has publicly leaked information about the scope and substance of at least some (and perhaps not all) of the U.S. government’s ongoing programs will perhaps spur some much needed debate on the subject, but for those who find this revelatory, I would point to the public disclosure of ECHELON more than a decade ago as indicative of what direction the world is heading. Quite frankly, my own personal operating assumption has been that digital channels as well as voice communications have been subject to intercept and monitoring for a long time now; the only question was, how often was this capability actually used? It’s pretty disturbing that the default setting appears to be to capture and archive everything, in effect establishing the boundaries of the “haystack” before searching for “the needle.” And with questionable oversight and accountability, the potential for abuse is staggering, even as we are told that sprawling data collection is necessary to “keep us safe.”


These days, it seems that if you don’t have a substantial digital footprint, you don’t exist, and while privacy advocates might relish this, given the convenience as well as outright necessity in some instances of maintaining an online presence it’s increasingly hard to do. For example, business networking and simple prudence tend to enforce the notion that a professional profile on LinkedIn is a necessity to find or maintain employment. If you don’t have a profile, you risk being seen as hopelessly outdated or “out of touch,” and even if happily employed (and this includes owning your own business), many customers and more importantly, prospective customers expect to be able to find relevant information about you without expending too much effort. Public profiles are in part seen as a means of validation and possible future recruitment (and prospecting for those selling goods and services), as well as a tool for networking and business intelligence gathering.

As consumers, we tend to enjoy the benefits of data analysis and relevancy; the recommendation engines of leading commerce sites are based not only on our past purchase history but our browsing activity, comments, and even the profiles of other people suspected of harboring similar interests and habits online.  While this is arguably a convenience when we are in shopping and a way to introduce us to products that we might otherwise miss mode (as well as a great way for companies to encourage spur-of-the-moment consumption to boost their bottom line), this data trail follows us and can quickly start to define us.


Another issue to consider is that once we have deliberately or inadvertently established certain patterns and behavioral attributes online, deviation from these norms could very well trigger algorithms which flag us for closer investigation. For example, if an individual goes from very active and robust use of email, social media and other online activity, and then abruptly trails off, who is to say that this doesn’t trigger certain surveillance tripwires? While an abrupt curtailing or termination of such activity might have very innocent explanations, it could also signal more serious concerns from the perspective of a government or corporation. From the corporate point of view, has this consumer lost interest in their offerings? Maybe it’s time to send coupons or other promotional material to re-spark interest. From the government point of view, is this individual now incapacitated, deceased or going to ground for perhaps more nefarious purposes? Would it be prudent to inquire into the individual’s health records, financial institutions or credit card providers to see what recent activity (or lack thereof) is revealed?

It has been observed that as surveillance grows and becomes more acceptable (or even palatable) to the populace, it has a corrosive effect on liberty. Robust access to behavioral data is a sure path to predictive profiling, and the potential for misuse or worse, misinterpretation of the data must give one pause, not to mention the ramifications of theft of such data by hackers or unscrupulous parties acting from not only outside the system, but possibly within it.


In social media and marketing, “authenticity” has become a buzzword du jour, used to convey the sense of “keeping it real” in one’s interactions with the outside world. I’ve historically felt that for those who feel the need to constantly harp on this subject, it raises into question how much of their authenticity is genuine and how much is manufactured, sort of like the illusion that is “reality TV.” Perhaps more insidiously, the more that one reveals to the world at large, the more this data can be mined, aggregated and analyzed not only in an effort to manipulate the individual’s consumer choices, but even to influence and to some degree control behavior and attitudes as well. While some might see this as paranoid or alarmist, social media accounts are a treasure trove of information which people voluntarily populate, requiring data collection and analysis, and perhaps occasional phishing attacks and social engineering to further exploit.

Ultimately, technology has enabled the Pandora’s Box of mythology to become reality, and like all things, has brought both welcome progress as well as arguably less beneficial developments to our world. We are fast learning, even in countries with democratically elected governments, that whether or not the political elite truly represent the “will of the people” is open to debate, and furthermore, that the vast bureaucracies and sprawling public and private apparatus established to enable modern societies is subject to exploitation from both within and without. Any thinking person who is not at least a little bit unsettled by the state of things deserves to realize that the new boss is exactly the same as the old boss…

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